Friday, 28 June 2013

Exclusive: Taliban leadership, Haqqanis on board Qatar talks, confirms Dobbins

“Pakistan playing a positive role, hope this will continue”

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 28th Jun 13

In New Delhi today, recently appointed US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, James Dobbins, discussed the situation in Afghanistan and the stalled Taliban dialogue in Qatar with the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Satinder Lambah, and with Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai. On Tuesday, Ambassador Dobbins had met Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and army chief, General Pervez Kayani in Islamabad.

Both Afghanistan and India have criticized the US-Taliban dialogue. On Jun 19, Karzai lashed out at the US after the Taliban inaugurated its new political office in Qatar with a plaque saying “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”, and the white flag and national anthem of the former Taliban government.

Dobbins is learnt to have told Lambah and Mathai that the Taliban violated the conditions of the talks by invoking the symbology of the former Taliban state. He claims that the US objected even before Karzai did, and the Qatar government quickly removed the offending flags and plaques.

According to Dobbins, the conditions accepted by the Taliban for opening the office in Qatar --- viz. no propaganda; no fund-raising; only political activities --- were specified in a diplomatic note that had been carefully negotiated over the preceding year and a half.

The dialogue, says Dobbins, is in limbo. With the Taliban representatives in Qatar viewing these restrictions as a setback for their image, they have referred back to the Taliban leadership about whether to continue talks.

Speaking to Business Standard, Dobbins said: “Having over-reached during the opening of the office, the Taliban have suffered a setback. Will they continue the dialogue? We don’t know, but we are not placing any early deadlines. Let them decide. There is clearly some debate within the Taliban between hard liners and those who are inclined to negotiate. Some at least realize that, despite whatever happens on the battlefield, things have changed too much in Afghanistan for there to be any return to the 2001 situation. And the Taliban would hope to gain legitimacy through negotiations with the United States.”

Asked whether there is certainty that genuine Taliban representatives have arrived for the talks in Qatar, Dobbins says: “The Taliban negotiators in Qatar include almost all the members of the Political Commission of the Taliban. And they clearly take orders from the Leadership Council, the next higher level. The fact that the representatives in Doha are hanging back suggests that they are awaiting orders from the Taliban leadership.”

Dobbins is learnt to believe that the Haqqani Network is also backing the Qatar dialogue. But Hizb-e-Islami chieftain, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, has renounced the dialogue, apparently relying on separate negotiations that might yield him greater benefits.

Braving New Delhi’s scepticism, Dobbins is appreciative of Islamabad’s role in the dialogue. “We have good evidence that Pakistan is being helpful. Pakistan has certainly contributed to the Taliban’s decision to come to the table. We do not know if this cooperation will endure, but we hope so,” he says.

Asked why the Taliban --- for which freeing Afghanistan of “foreign occupation” is a fundamental tenet --- would talk in earnest with a “foreign occupier” that is simultaneously negotiating a Strategic Partnership Agreement with the Karzai government for a residual American presence after 2014, Dobbins says: “The Taliban has made contradictory public statements about a residual US force after 2014. First a Taliban representative recently said that they could accept a residual US presence; then another statement said that this would not be acceptable.”

On whether the Taliban could be entering dialogue in order to get NATO forces to reduce their tempo of operations, the US Special Representative points out, “The Taliban is clearly not intending to bring down the tempo of NATO operations because it is itself ramping up operations, as we saw from this week’s attack on the US Embassy in Kabul. We believe that the Taliban would like to see the US leave Afghanistan in defeat, not in victory, so they will step up violence and try to disrupt the elections. We are conducting our own military operations based on that assumption.”

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Windfall for Pakistan, to get first call on US military leftovers in Afghanistan

Heavily dependent on Pakistan for a smooth withdrawal, US will give it $7 billion worth of leftover kit for a token payment

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 27th Jun 13

Along with the Taliban, Pakistan will be a massive gainer from America’s troop drawdown from Afghanistan by end-2014. A top-level US official, speaking off-the-record, has told Business Standard that Pakistan will get first call on all the American military equipment that costs too much to be transported back to the US.

Washington believes it is obligated to Islamabad for bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table at Qatar, for discussions aimed at reducing violence in Afghanistan, which would smoothen the American troop drawdown this year and the next. Furthermore, Washington relies on Pakistan for overland transit from Afghanistan to Karachi, where heavy equipment is loaded onto cargo vessels bound for the US.

Uzbekistan, which also provides transit routes to the US, had earlier sought to buy the surplus US equipment in Afghanistan. But routing through Uzbekistan, and then over a road and rail network in Central Asia and Russia called the Northern Distribution Network, is 4-5 times more expensive and time consuming than transiting through Pakistan. Washington has now decided conclusively in favour of Pakistan.

An earlier report in The Washington Post had estimated that the US military would leave behind some $7 billion worth of defence equipment, one-fifth of what is deployed in Afghanistan. US military officials tell Business Standard that aircraft, heavy weapons, vehicles and equipment are likely to be repatriated to the US. Much of what Pakistan will benefit from will be ammunition, vehicles, construction material, air-conditioners, etc.

Much more could be left behind if the situation deteriorates; Taliban resistance would determine what could feasibly be transported. Sceptics in New Delhi point out that Pakistan controls the spigot of violence.

It has not been revealed how much Pakistan would pay for the equipment left behind, but US officials say it would be a fraction of the real value. Given that the US is paying billions of dollars each year to build up the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP), it remains unclear why Washington has not given Kabul the first call on the surplus equipment being left behind.

The cost of repatriation, says Bloomberg News, could be about $7 billion. Danish container giant, Moeller-Maersk A/S, Singapore-based Neptune Orient Lines, and German company, Hapag-Lloyd AG will ship out some 22,000 container-loads of equipment, says US Assistant Secretary of Defence for Logistics, Alan Estevez.

Much of that business would go to Pakistani truck operators in Peshawar and Quetta. Equipment in northern Afghanistan would be transported over the Khyber Pass, through Peshawar to Karachi; while equipment in the south of Afghanistan would cross the Bolan Pass, and then be taken through Quetta to Karachi.

Islamabad has effectively demonstrated to Washington its reliance on Pakistani goodwill. After a US air strike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at a border post in Nov 2011, Islamabad shut down transit routes till July 2012, forcing the Pentagon into costly dependence on the Northern Distribution Network.

Over the years, Washington has provided Islamabad an approximate $2.5 billion annually in military aid. About half of that is Coalition Support Funds, which reimburses the Pakistan military for counter insurgency operations in the tribal areas along the Afghanistan border. Over the last decade, US media reports have extensively documented that the Pakistan military has been submitting inflated expense reports to claim more money.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

US Pacific Command chief caught in MoD protocol for appointments

Admiral Locklear meets Air Chief Marshal Browne, Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. His request to meet all three service chiefs together was not granted

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 26th Jun 13

Admiral Sam Locklear heads the US Pacific Command (PACOM), making him the most powerful military commander on earth. With 60 per cent of the US Navy under him, PACOM oversees 52 per cent of the planet. Locklear is America’s military pointsman for 36 countries, including India and China.

But for India’s protocol-driven ministry of defence (MoD), the admiral is just a military commander. During Locklear’s ongoing visit to India, Defence Minister AK Antony has turned down a request for a meeting, directing Locklear instead to Defence Secretary RK Mathur. Also turned down was Locklear’s request for a meeting with India’s three service chiefs. Instead, he was only invited to meet the Indian Air Force (IAF) chief, Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne, who heads the Chiefs of Staff Committee.

MoD officials admit that these meetings were “substantive, not just ceremonial.” PACOM provides the military muscle for the US “rebalance to Asia.” And with the Indian Navy --- concerned about China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean --- rapidly developing Asia-Pacific partnerships with countries like Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Singapore, PACOM is a crucial interlocutor.

Furthermore, Locklear is a crucial arbiter of what weaponry and defence technologies the US supplies to India. Every proposed sale must have the PACOM chief’s backing, based on his determination that providing that capability to India would be in the strategic interests of the US.

PACOM, headquartered in Hawaii, is by far the biggest of America’s six “geographic commands”, each headed by a four-star general or admiral who reports to the US President through the Secretary of Defence. These six operational commanders are far more powerful, and relevant to regional partner countries like India, than the Washington-based chiefs of the US air force, army, navy or marine corps. While the service chiefs merely man, equip and recruit for their services, the geographic heads are battlefield commanders who command the US military in combat.

The US campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan were run from Central Command (CENTCOM), headquartered in Tampa, Florida. And the PACOM chief would be the top US commander in a hypothetical war against China.

For years, India’s ministry of defence (MoD) has been unenthusiastic about the burgeoning US-India relationship, which insiders frankly say is due to Defence Minister AK Antony’s left-of-centre political inclinations. Though the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) are more bullish on the relationship, Antony’s seniority and clout allow him to have his way.

While the MoD is authorized a joint secretary from the MEA for coordinating foreign policy, the MEA has failed to provide one. As a result, an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer, Smita Nagaraj, fills that post. MoD insiders say that her foreign policy inexperience lets Antony have his way.

Consequently, Antony has resolutely blocked multilateral naval exercises with the US since 2007, when the participation of 25 warships from India, the US, Japan, Australia and Singapore in Exercise Malabar aroused protests from the Left Front and the apparent ire of China.

Now the MoD is stonewalling India’s participation in next year’s RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific Maritime Exercise), the world’s largest multilateral maritime exercise, which PACOM hosts in Hawaii. In the last edition of RIMPAC, 22 navies and 40 warships participated, including the Russian Navy. In the next edition in 2014, the Chinese navy is expected to participate. But the MoD worries that India’s participation might offend someone.

In contrast, bilateral exercises with the US have progressed apace; 62 joint exercises have taken place so far. The US says it does more joint training with India than with any other country. Indian Navy officers say US-India exercises have reached a level of sophistication where they provide excellent training.

“They especially help in developing operational doctrines for new platforms like the P8I maritime reconnaissance aircraft. Both countries are just inducting it into service and there are lessons that we can share,” says an Indian Navy planner.

Trying to bridge these gaps between the MoD and the Pentagon is the Defence Technology Initiative (DTI), jointly headed by US Deputy Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, and National Security Advisor, Shivshankar Menon. Even though its primary purpose is to find ways of moving beyond a buyer-seller relationship into the realm of co-development and co-production, the DTI also hopes to soothe some of the irritants between the two defence bureaucracies.

Although the MoD has refused to comment, officials say that the US army chief, General Ray Odierno, who will visit India shortly, will be meeting Antony.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Our last recourse

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 25th Jun 13

The Indian Air Force (IAF) has imaginatively employed its new C-130J Super Hercules aircraft --- six of which were purchased in 2010 from the United States for Rs 3,835 crore --- to revive flagging rescue and relief efforts at Dharasu, in flood-hit Uttarakhand. With fuel running out for the IAF’s Mi-17 helicopters that were flying relief missions from the small, 1300 metre Dharasu airstrip, the C-130Js’ game-changing ability to land on tiny airstrips was brought into play. Fully fuelled C-130Js flew in from Hindan (near Ghaziabad) and landed in Dharasu, each one unloading 8,000 litres of aviation fuel from its on-board tanks for use by the Mi-17s. On their return journey, the C-130Js ferried medically distressed people, making this a two-way air bridge.

This is just one recent example of military equipment and personnel becoming the instrument of last resort for overwhelmed administrators in disaster situations. The Gujarat earthquake in 2001; the Kashmir earthquake in 2005; the Ladakh flash floods in 2010, the Sikkim earthquake in 2011, and multiple flood relief operations that the services undertake every year highlight that the military is the only effective disaster response force in the country. And that the vast sums spent on the military, and its equipment, is not just insurance for some far-fetched threat of external aggression but real capability for situations that all-too frequently move beyond the capacity of the other instruments of state.

Every one of India’s military units has an official plan for “Aid to Civil Authorities” that is as carefully formulated as its plans for war. This spells out exactly what that unit will do when the government asks for help during flood, earthquake or breakdown of public order. When officially requisitioned by what the army still cheerfully calls “the civil administration” all its equipment is deployed to assist the people.

India’s armed forces have proved equally useful during trans-national natural disasters, such as the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. The Indian Navy put 30 vessels to sea in just 48 hours, providing desperately needed relief in coastal India, and across the region including Sri Lanka and Indonesia. So quick and effective was the navy’s response that the US Pacific Command, which arrived later, openly acknowledged for the first time that the Indian Navy was the only regional force with the resources and will to exercise power across the Indian Ocean.

This careful planning and ability contrasts starkly with the bumbling ineptitude of local administrations, state disaster response forces and the National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA), which wags say is a full-fledged disaster itself. If the Uttarakhand government seems overwhelmed, the reason --- as is evident from the April 23 audit report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of the Uttarakhand Disaster Management Authority --- is that the state has utterly failed to prepare for natural disasters. The Authority, created in 2007, has never held a meeting; almost half the posts in the district emergency cells remain unfilled to this day.

A fatalistic Uttarakhand Chief Minister, Vijay Bahuguna, told CNN-IBN’s Karan Thapar in an interview that there can be no actionable programme for the plethora of disasters --- cloudbursts, glacier collapses and flooded rivers --- that Uttarakhand might face. In his defence, he argued that no Indian state meets the norms of disaster management. This is factually true, but logically irrelevant.

Trying to show up Bahuguna, Gujarat’s chief minister arrived in Uttarakhand, putting together a surreal cameo performance entitled, “No Gujarati Left Behind” (I made up the title, but the rest is true). Ignoring the responses of other agencies, Narendra Modi and his crack team brainstormed till the wee hours, and then dispatched (according to one Times of India report, at least) 80 Toyota Innovas, four Boeings and a fleet of luxury buses to pluck a claimed 15,000 stranded Gujaratis from the sliding mud and swirling waters of Uttarakhand and transport them to safety. But while Modi may rescue Gujaratis in an election year (Why? I thought he was projecting himself as the leader of all Indians?), the rest of the citizenry must rely on the armed forces.

True, India’s geography makes it essential for the military to play this role. It is equally true that even countries with functional governments call upon their militaries when situations legitimately escalate: remember Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans? But few countries do so as often as India, except perhaps Pakistan --- and we know what that has led to. It must also be noted that the remoteness and vulnerability of so much of this otherwise teeming country is unquestionably the failure of the Indian state. When things go bad --- whether in terms of security or natural disasters --- there is always the military!

To remember what we often forget, the military must be nurtured as an important wing of government, our last recourse in dire need. The cold-eyed mandarins in New Delhi must commit the resources and attention that this instrument needs, remembering that this is not “non-productive expenditure”, but a living organisation that must be continually replenished.

Tailpiece: I remember, during the 2002 J&K elections, which are widely regarded as a turning point in open insurgency in that troubled state, a 20-minute sortie that I flew in an IAF Mi-17 helicopter, which was conveying a polling team and an EVM from Doda to an isolated village high in the Pir Panjal. This was done so that 11 voters in that village could cast their ballots. On the evening of polling day, the Mi-17 went back to pick up the polling team. More than any flowery statements on India’s democracy, this astonishing military effort to obtain the ballots of 11 voters represents for me the triumph of India’s electoral exercise.